If you think that speaking to peers about your research is much easier than talking to people on the street, you may be surprised. Your colleagues often understand a lot less than you assume.
An institute director was listening to research lectures from his group leaders. At one point, the director turned to the new staff member next to him and asked, “Do you understand any of this?” The new staff member, not a scientist, flushed a bit in embarrassment and quietly confessed, “No, I’m afraid not.” The director replied, “It’s OK, neither do I.”
Next time you give a talk in your research group or department, ask your colleagues to echo back the key points of your story and why you did your experiments the way you did. You may be shocked at how badly the audience misses your key messages.
If you could interview scientists where they felt safe enough to be honest – or perhaps if you simply paid them a heap of cash – many would admit that the average scientific paper in their field is more exhausting and less enjoyable to process than a statistics text; the average poster, harder to decipher than hieroglyphics; and the average talk, more mind-numbing than reading the ingredients list on your morning muesli. Yet most scientists don their uniforms of opaque, overwinded jargon and soldier on, shaping their research communication in the same way as “everyone else” in the field.
How can you communicate differently?
“You need to strive to make your work more relevant to them than these competing interests”
Accept that while your scientist readers and listeners may be somehow special or different from the layman – think “Big Bang Theory” quirky – their attention span and working memory are usually just as limited. They are constantly tuning in and out as they read your paper or listen to your talk. They’re usually distracted by things that are much more meaningful to them than your research. This includes their own research, their hunger, their friends or their bladder. You need to strive to make your work more relevant to them than these competing interests (except, perhaps, for the bladder), at least for the time that they’re holding your paper or sitting in your seminar.
Most researchers are turned on by projects that sound new and useful. Even if your work lies outside their field, they will tend to pay attention if they can understand enough to see that your work addresses a question that’s never been answered and that the answer will change future research or practice. If you say, “we want to identify molecular targets in cancer”, many in your audience will yawn with a “great, who doesn’t?”. However, if you say, “we want to identify which ErbB genes, when deleted, can slow or reverse cancer transformation”, then your audience may begin to feel the energy of your work.
Seeing is believing
“You must learn to be less self-centered, less selfish when you communicate your science.”
Like the layman, scientists are visual. You must describe the cellular processes, your key experiments and results, and your models in ways that the audience can see in their mind’s eye. If they cannot see (literally) what you’re pipetting into which cells, what the proteins in your pathway are doing, or how all your up- and down-regulations interact, then they’re not going to see the key messages in your story. You see all these things clearly, but your audience does not. You must learn to be less self-centered, less selfish when you communicate your science. Use language, examples, and explanations that speak to the audience, even if they don’t necessarily speak to you.
From 3-dimensional to 1-dimensional and back again
Visualizability is essential to your audience’s understanding because of the dimensionality of communication. Imagine your project as a three-dimensional castle, with a distinctive look, feel, and texture. You have to disassemble that castle and send it to your audience stone by stone as a one-dimensional stream of ideas. Your audience must receive the individual stones and reassemble them into a three-dimensional castle. What are the chances that their castle will look exactly like yours? Worse than your chances of winning Eurojackpot. Especially when your audience are hyperanalytical researchers, who happily take a few of your stones and add in several of their own to make something that they personally find far more understandable and therefore interesting.
This means that you need to distill your message down to a handful of key ideas that illustrate the new and useful of your project. And you must repeat these ideas strategically throughout your paper or talk. Those key ideas form the “nucleus” of your project.
The “nucleus” of your project
“Think more like the audience… and give them a concrete “new” and “useful” that they can visualize.”
Most researchers work in competitive fields, where many laboratories are studying the same disease process, the same signaling pathways, even the same molecules. The nucleus should help the audience see how your work complements, not copies, the next most-similar-sounding research in the field. Imagine that you’re trying to bring a new toothpaste to the market. You’re not going to say simply, “My product will clean your teeth well.” Many toothpastes can do that. You have to convince people that your toothpaste offers something that apparently similar products do not.
Thinking more like the audience, with all their limitations, and giving them a concrete “new” and “useful” that they can visualize – these techniques can help you communicate your work to colleagues so that they understand what you’re doing that no one else is, and why that work needs to be done. And just maybe their 3-dimensional castle will end up bearing more than a passing resemblance to yours.
Thank you to A. Chapin Rodríguez, PhD, founder of Creaducate Consulting GmbH, for contributing this article.